My husband has a saying that stress is proportional to the difference between our expectations and reality. This helps to explain why the holiday season can be so stressful. If there’s one time of year that’s loaded with expectations, it’s the holidays. You may expect yourself to decorate your home festively—even if decorating doesn’t come naturally to you. You may expect yourself to create culinary masterpieces—even if cooking isn’t your favorite thing to do. You may place pressure on yourself to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list—even if you don’t actually enjoy shopping. Plus, even if you actually enjoy all the holiday activities, if your to-do list is full year-round, all those extra tasks can put even the most organized person into overdrive. Above all, because it’s the holidays, you expect yourself and your family to do all of these activities and to-dos with a smile on their faces—enjoying every minute of it! So when things stop going as you pictured during the holidays, the result is stress.

If you don’t enjoy (or even dread) certain aspects of the holidays, then you’re probably not ready to think about the holidays yet. (Maybe you cringe at the sight of holiday decorations already lining the aisles of your favorite retailer, or you were tempted to hit delete when you saw I was talking about the holidays.) If so, then here’s the thing—you will be happier if you read this article and start thinking about the holidays now. The best way to eliminate stress during the holidays is to start early! And that can be easier (and more fun!) than you think. Here’s how:

Reevaluate your expectations.

The media does a terrific job of showing us exactly how the holidays should be. From idyllic photos of perfectly prepared meals served on beautifully decorated tables, there’s no shortage of ideas as to what the holidays are supposed to be like. But let me ask you a question: What do you want out of the holidays? If you don’t enjoy cooking or setting an elaborate table, wouldn’t it be a huge relief if you could simplify your meal preparations this year—and not worry about the beautiful spreads shown on T.V.? If you don’t enjoy wrapping gifts, wouldn’t it be great to let go of the pressure of perfectly wrapped gifts and embrace the idea of using gift bags instead? The bottom line is this—let go of “should” and instead ask “what if?” For example, what if I did the holidays on my terms? What if I let go of the expectation that things had to be just so? What if I focused on joy, instead of perfection? What if I completely reframed my expectations about how the holidays should be?

Reevaluate your family’s expectations.

The next way to eliminate stress is to reevaluate your family’s expectations. Ask them what traditions and activities they look forward to each year. Which things aren’t so important to them, and have simply become habit? Once you’re clear about what’s truly important to yourself and your family members, you can get busy creating a plan—a plan that empowers you to do the holidays on your terms.

Create a plan.

There are just over eight weeks until Christmas morning—which is truly a lot of time if you get started now. After reevaluating your family’s expectations and your own, make a holiday to-do list. Prioritize—or schedule early—the tasks that are most important and most meaningful to you and your loved ones. Eliminate anything you’re doing just because you think you should or because you’ve always done it that way. Simplify everything else. Let go of the expectation that you have to bake cookies from scratch if you don’t enjoy baking. Don’t feel pressured to send holiday cards if the process makes ties your stomach in knots. Make a plan that focuses on the aspects of the holidays that you find meaningful and make you happy.

organized holiday planning basket

Start early to finish early.

If you dread the holidays because of the last-minute rush to the finish line, get started now. You’ve got a to-do list, so simply take a look at it and see what things you can start now. Don’t worry about finishing just yet, but instead, begin making a little bit of progress every day. When you start early you can spread your holiday to-do list over the span of two months—which means you might just finish early.

Remember, the best gift you can give your loved ones this holiday season is your own joy and happiness. Get started early, say goodbye to stress and enjoy the holidays this year!

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Aby Garvey is a creative organizing expert and simplify 101’s founder. She has created 14 online organizing classes, which she has been teaching since 2007, helping thousands of people around the world get organized. Aby loves to help people create positive change in their lives through her online classes and organizing eBooks.

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